In a month, Illinois will become the first state in the nation where those arrested for crimes will not have the option of paying bail.
Instead, whether someone stays in jail as they await trial will be based on a series of metrics. Judges will have limited discretion based on factors like the type of alleged crime and a risk assessment.
“Illinois on Jan. 1, 2023, will make history. Civil rights history. One that all of us can look back at with pride,” said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. “I know that I will say that this is my version of the Voting Rights Act. This is my version of Obamacare. This is what I did and changed the fortunes for thousands of working class Illinoisians.”
The SAFE-T Act package passed as law two years ago, in January 2021. But only in January 2023 will its most controversial part, the Pretrial Fairness Act, take effect.
Illinois lawmakers spent all of Thursday – their last day of session in 2022 – making last minute changes to the law
Republicans were opposed to the SAFE-T Act in the first place. They say while Democrats spent two years dismissing their common-sense concerns as “fear mongering,” the day’s adjustments demonstrate they were right all along.
“Guess what? We’re here today to address the stuff that we were accused of fear mongering about, because it’s true,” said state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Moline. “You guys (Democrats) play a dirty game and we’re onto you, and the public’s onto you too, and this is just one more example of how you and your leftist policies are driving a once great state into the ground.”
The Senate approved the revisions to the SAFE-T Act (contained in Senate Amendments 1 and 2 to House Bill 1095) with votes to spare, but the measure eked by in the House. The proposal was down two votes for a couple of tense moments until Democratic Reps. Fred Crespo and Jawaharial “Omar” Williams gave it the super-majority it needed to pass.
Democrats and advocates who’ve been pushing for the elimination of cash bail said the important thing is that the main tenets of what they’d been trying to accomplish are the same.
“We started to do the work to ensure that equal justice under law needs exactly that,” said Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview. “That you don’t have somebody bond out because they have a wad of cash in their pocket, or because they have enough money in their bank account, while somebody else is in jail simply because they’re poor.”
State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said the amendments aren’t minor tweaks, he says Gov. J.B. Pritzker should answer for that.
“No mere clarification; they are substantial changes being made because of the harm. Putting the public at risk because of the Safe-T Act in the first place,” said Barickman. “So governor, why did you sign the law in the first place and put the public at risk?”
Critics acknowledge that the revised SAFE-T Act will improve things come January, but argue the changes don’t go far enough.
“All of the issues that we’re concerned about are still there. Not things have improved, I’m not going to deny that. But they’re still there and we have a severe crime problem in this state,” said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield.
It’s not strictly a partisan issue.
Several dozen state’s attorneys are suing to prevent the SAFE-T Act from going into effect. A hearing is set for mid-December.
Even those who aren’t part of the consolidated lawsuit have unresolved concerns.
For Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Reitz, one hole deals with the so-called detention net.
The SAFE-T Act spells out the crimes that are non-probationable. The new version expands that list to include what Reitz, a Democrat, said were crimes that were clearly missing from the original, but still does not specify others, such as types of burglary.
Reitz, who is president of the statewide State’s Attorneys’ Association, says prosecutors had tried for a “catch all” to serve as a blanket provision that would allow law enforcement to push for someone to be detained if circumstances warrant it.
“The criminal justice world is full of grays. You know you might have somebody who throws a brick through a window, and that’s a criminal damage to property. But they have a manifesto on them or a list of names of people that might be at risk from that individual,” she said. “We can’t detain them based just on the offense of criminal damage to property. And so that’s an example of a concern that we would have.”
Prosecutors can move to detain someone if they can prove a defendant is likely to try to purposely evade future court action.
The SAFE-T Act trailer legislation lowers the burden for proving flight risk, which Reitz said is a positive change.
At the same time, the measure seeks to ensure that a defendant won’t be punished for missing a court date unintentionally, like if they forget, or their bus runs late.
The new measure also lays out a new standard for how a defendant can be deemed dangerous.
“People accused of any charge should not be detained based on the hypothetical or vague possible threat to others,” Peters said. “They should only be detained if something about the offense they are accused of suggests that they pose a real and present threat to others. Prosecutors are required to articulate exactly what that threat is and judges are required to find that such a threat exists before we take someone's freedom away while they are presumed innocent.”
Backers of the SAFE-T Act are claiming victory for fending off political attacks that at times veered into racism or misinformation.
“After nearly two full years of intense struggle led by communities across Illinois, we have successfully defended the Pretrial Fairness Act from being rolled back or repealed,” the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice (INPJ) said in a statement. “Those attempts to preserve the money bond system — one of the primary drivers of mass incarceration — have failed.”
Pritzker signaled in a statement that he will sign the trailer bill into law.
“I’m pleased that the General Assembly has upheld the principles we fought to protect, including bringing an end to a system where those charged with violent offenses can buy their way out of jail, while others who are poor and charged with nonviolent offenses wait in jail for trial,” Pritzker said.
The General Assembly is not scheduled to return to Springfield in 2022, but legislators are set to convene again starting Jan. 4 for five days of lame- duck session. A new General Assembly will be seated Jan. 11.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky